Architecture review — Louis Vuitton’s tribute to Yayoi Kusama

Swirls, dots give new life to 57th Street corner
By James Gardner | July 13, 2012 04:00PM

It would be hard to imagine a more magnificent or merited tribute to a living artist than the one that has just been unveiled at the Louis Vuitton flagship on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The facade has been reconceived partially by, and entirely in honor of, Yayoi Kusama, the 83-year-old Japanese-American artist whose retrospective opened yesterday at the Whitney museum.

Kusama has spread across the entire corner façade of the building those swirling, obsessive dots, in varying sizes, that have made her one of the best and most recognizable artists of the post-war era. In addition, she has consented to design some accessories, together with Marc Jacobs, for Louis Vuitton, as well as the store’s window displays. One of these depicts Kusama herself, in a preternaturally life-like wax effigy, rising like an ancestral, pink-clad earth-mother from amid her works of art.

But her contribution to the Louis Vuitton façade also has architectural implications that must not be overlooked. The structure that she uses as her canvas was originally the 11-story New York Trust Co. building, designed in 1930 by Cross & Cross. Back in 2004 the façade was fundamentally re-conceived by Jun Aoki in commemoration of Louis Vuitton’s 150th anniversary, with similar interiors designed by Peter Marino.

Aoki is a gifted architect who tends to favor a pristine and almost priestly minimalism that is fully in evidence in the 57th Street Louis Vuitton façade — in its unaltered state. That façade is a cascade of sheer, bone-white glass panels enlivened with hints of fritting. The slight problem that I have had with his work on 57th Street is that the look of immateriality that he was seeking feels almost flimsy, a problem that is less evident in his other work, here and abroad.

That flimsiness, however, has been dispelled, at least for the time being, through the bold invasion of Kusama’s billowing black dots. Perhaps the best thing about her intervention is that it is the logical consequence of what was implicit all along in Aoki’s design: the façade is little more than the thinnest of skins thrown over the building’s steel skeleton. That being the case, the suits at Louis Vuitton might want to consider equally bold revisions in the future. That could result, perceptually, in transforming the northeast corner of 57th Street, one of the most visible corners in Manhattan, into a different building every month.